'They don't care,' says Montreal renter living in rundown apartment
Critics say more city inspections not enough to get building owners to make repairs
When Shahida James first saw pictures of an apartment in Montreal's Parc-Extension neighbourhood online, it looked clean and bright.
She and her family needed an apartment, sight unseen, because they were moving from Vancouver.
But when they arrived two years ago, they found their new home was full of what appears to be mould — on the window sills, in almost every room, on the bathroom walls and the ceiling.
There are cupboard doors missing from the cabinets in the kitchen and there's also a mouse problem, she said.
"They don't tell you that there is mould here, that this thing is broken, that this thing is leaking. They don't care. They just need money," said James, who has complained to both the janitor and the building owner repeatedly.
Although some improvements were made, James said the issues keep coming back and they are affecting her family's quality of life.
Aggressive inspection program
It's apartments like theirs that the City of Montreal vowed to inspect, in order to ensure people are living in clean and sanitary conditions.
Last year, city inspectors visited more than six times the number of rental units it inspected in 2017.
"We put into place a very aggressive inspection program," said Craig Sauvé, the associate councillor for housing on the City of Montreal's executive committee.
By 2021, the city has pledged to inspect 31,000 units across the city.
To do that, it doubled the number of housing inspectors and reduced the wait time for an inspection from 95 days to 35 days once a complaint is lodged.
"We're trying to get it to 10," said Sauvé.
When complaints come in to the boroughs about substandard housing, units are assigned a code, from low to high, which flags how quickly it needs to be inspected.
Based on that, the city's inspectors are sent out, prioritizing the most urgent cases first.
Deterrence through fines?
Céline Magontier, a spokesperson for the social housing group FRAPRU, said the city has identified nearly 4,000 housing units that are in bad shape around the city.
Of those, there are still more than 300 urgent cases and another 800 listed as medium priority. All of them are still waiting for inspectors to visit, said Magontier.
"You can walk the streets of Montreal and see the rental housing is deteriorating too quickly," said Magontier. "It's a ticking time bomb."
She believes the city is too lenient with owners.
Of the 2,354 inspections done last year, only 50 fines were levied, for a combined total of $97,000.
Magontier said that's unacceptable, as three quarters of the inspections revealed violations. The most frequent are rat or mice infestations, the presence of mould and plumbing problems.
She said if the city wants to send out a message that substandard housing is unacceptable, it needs to be more proactive and hit owners where it hurts — their pocketbooks.
Otherwise, she said the owners will not be motivated to act and people's quality of life will suffer.
But Sauvé said fines are not always the best tool.
"You sometimes give a fine to somebody, then they pay the fine and they don't correct the situation," he said.
When possible, the city tries to work with the owner to make repairs.
Inspectors will ask for certain changes to be made and follow up to make sure they are done.
If there's no movement, in some cases the city has stepped in and done the work, then billed the landlord afterwards.
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In rare cases, the city has evacuated unsanitary buildings and found temporary housing for the tenants.
Tenant feels helpless
In James's case, she and her husband went to the borough to complain. They were told to put their complaint into writing and send it to their landlord first, which they said have done.
She said other neighbours have also complained about what they say is mould, as well as cockroaches and general disrepair.
CBC contacted the landlord, Constantinos Kouvertaris, who said he has an extermination team that visits the building frequently. He said if tenants have a problem, they should contact the janitor, who will advise him.
He said city inspectors have visited in the past, and he has never been fined because he is a "professional."
Kouvertaris said he deals with repairs in an expedient way and said if tenants can't keep their apartments clean, that leads to problems.
James said if it wasn't for the affordable cost of the apartment, she, her husband and their two children would have moved elsewhere long ago.
"We are helpless," she said.
With files from Anna Sosnowski and Jaela Bernstien